Program works to keep inmates busy

Saturday, January 8th 2005, 3:12 pm
By: News On 6

HELENA, Okla. (AP) _ The man hunched intently over his work, carefully working a plastic hook through an intricate series of loops in the yarn he held in his hands.

Nearby another man in matching gray clothes reclined in his chair as he worked on his own contribution to the project, seemingly paying little attention to what his hands were doing.

Neither man, inmates at James Crabtree Correctional Center in Helena, is one you would expect to be crocheting. But both men are part of a new program at the prison to put previously ``unemployable'' inmates to work, making a difference in the community in the process.

``We're really proud of this group,'' Warden Eric Franklin said after prison officials dropped off 30 inmate-made afghans at a Helena nursing home.

It was one of the first donations to result from the JCCC Bridge Project, which was conceived as a way to create a bridge between the medium security prison's inmates and society.

Officials at the prison containing 860 men, most older than age 35, said the program has created some much-needed jobs at JCCC.

``We're about 200 jobs short, and idleness can lead to other problems,'' Franklin said.

Programs coordinator Doug Byrd said more than 200 of the facility's inmates were considered ``unemployable'' because of physical disabilities that made it impossible for them to work regular jobs at the prison.

It started out mostly with scraps and donations since the prison's budget did not include much money for programs.

``The guys are real creative,'' Franklin said. ``They can make anything out of scrap material.''

In addition to the afghans being cobbled together out of 12- by 12-inch crocheted squares, inmates are working on wooden toys and jewelry boxes.

Inmates can earn up to $20 a month for their prison labor, but participants in the new program aren't in it just for the money.

``It's a job for us, but it's sort of like arts and crafts, too,'' said inmate Gregory Scruggs, who is serving a 10-year term for inducing a minor to engage in prostitution in Oklahoma County. ``We're doing something we enjoy. ``It makes time go by quicker.''

Deputy warden Jerry Chrisman said the jewelry boxes are made from wooden sticks that previously were thrown out as security risks when inmates working for Oklahoma Correctional Industries made corn dogs.

The inmates seem to be taking to the program as much as prison officials and the community.

Inmate Karl Myers said it took him two weeks to learn how to crochet _ ``I was all thumbs'' _ but now he can turn out two or three squares each day.

``That made my day,'' he said. ``That's what I like doing.''

Inmate Roy Walker said it only took him five days to pick up the complicated rhythm of looping yarn into woven squares.

``I'm just good with my hands, I guess,'' said Walker, who was sentenced to 50 years in prison in 1998 after being convicted of robbery and burglary in Oklahoma County.

Walker said crocheting is a relaxing activity and he is glad to be helping those in need, but he also wants to learn how to do some of the other projects inmates are working on.

Scruggs is tasked with making heart-shaped jewelry boxes out of cardboard and wooden sticks because he couldn't figure out how to crochet. He said another inmate showed him how to make a jewelry box.

Each one takes a week, using an assembly line approach to shape the box in cardboard, cover it in sticks then line it with felt.

Scruggs said it is an outlet for his creativity, as he has experimented over the last few weeks with a number of designs.

Inmate Gary Rice uses a pattern taught to him by another inmate to cover the top of his jewelry box.

Rice, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison after being convicted of lewd molestation in Garfield County, said he started by lining up sticks in the center of the lid, then aligning them like steps from there.

Myers, who is serving a 25-year term on two counts of first-degree rape from Carter County, said he appreciates the opportunity to give back to the community as well as a chance to do anything.

Myers uses a wheelchair after multiple surgeries left him medically unsound for most jobs at the prison. That meant he spent much of his time reading or watching television.

Now he has something to keep his mind active.

``That old cliche 'You can't teach an old dog new tricks' is out the window,'' Myers said, ``because you can.''

Myers said he has some experience with beadwork he hopes to phase into the program, sharing his skills with other inmates.

That is how the bridge program got started.

Sgt. James Nall said a couple of inmates knew how to crochet and taught that skill to a few others.

``We started out small,'' he said.

From a few inmates, the program grew to its current compliment of about three dozen.

Franklin said he hopes the program turns into a long-term solution for the prison to keep inmates with physical problems working.

He said the program could expand to as many as 200 inmates if officials can find enough space and materials for them.

``That's our struggle,'' Byrd said.

Right now, the program can only grow to include 48 inmates because of space constraints in its current location.

Officials are relying on donations because there isn't much money from Department of Corrections to fund the program.

Chrisman said prison officials were fortunate to find some donors early on to get the program running, but they still need more materials.

He said he hopes showing off what the program is capable of will encourage other donors to step forward, as well as providing a thank you to those who already contributed.